When Teaching Breaks Your Heart



A wave of hopelessness washes over me as I click the email. The subject line – “The Apology Letter” – sounds ominous. I wonder why one of my students is apologizing to me.

Last Saturday night, Miss R, one of my 8th grade rhetoric students, wrote: “I am so sorry Mr. King. I am so sorry because, I am a failure to my partner (Mr. ——). I let us down big time. I guess I’m not really a debater, so I’m sorry.”

I was crestfallen. Times like these are when teaching breaks your heart. Miss R is one of my hardest-working students, the kind of student whose curiosity and strong work ethic carry her forward. She’s the first to raise her hand in class, wriggling in her seat, jostling to be the first student I call. Her grandmother owns the modest country store across the street, a cheerful place where canned peaches and hard candy adorn the spare shelves. Every two months, Miss R travels to a children’s hospital in Little Rock, where her sister receives treatment for cancer. She may not have the fastest mile time, but she always takes two steps forward and no steps back. Miss R lives to please her teachers and is ashamed at the prospect of disappointing us.

I took a minute to process the late-night email, then decided it was too early to let Miss R give up on herself. I called the only number I had, which turned out to be her grandmother’s. Luckily, her grandmother answered and passed on Miss R’s home number. I dialed again and this time Miss R picked up. On her end of the line, I heard muffled screams. Miss R moved into another room and the sounds grew quieter. Only today did Miss R reveal that it was her sister screaming in background. Childhood cancer must be suffering incarnate.

Our conversation drifted from talk of weekends to talking of the next weekend – the looming debate this Saturday in Jackson. Miss R’s voice trilled with anxiety. She reiterated her concerns – the doubt in her preparation, the dissatisfaction with her own writing, the sense that she simply didn’t have the ability to debate – and I listened. Then I offered my rebuttal. “Miss R,” I said, “you are not a failure.” I don’t remember what I else I said, but I managed to beg, borrow, and steal a concession from her – Miss R would send me pictures of her case, I’d type it up for her, and we’d make a plan of action in the coming week. As of today, she and her partner are Jackson-bound. I only hope a strong showing this weekend will give her some ammunition in the fight against the inner demons of self-doubt.

Another female student approached me this week, also concerned about the debate on Saturday. This student, Miss C, is a perfectionist. Her homework is exquisite. She’s not the first to raise her hand in class, but when I cold-call her, she almost always supplies a correct answer. Last week, when we were practicing rebuttals, she outperformed the rest of the class (I told her as much, but she thought I wasn’t being straight with her). Miss C’s partner has had shoddy attendance and didn’t write her case, leaving Miss C doubting whether she even could attend the debate on Saturday. Add to this Miss C’s concerns over her level of preparation, and general anxiety when it comes to competing with louder students, and she her mind was already made up by the time she approached me – come Hell or high water, she was not going to Jackson. It took an intervention from our Program Director to buy some time and work out a new partner arrangement for Miss C. Even now, there’s no joy in rhetoric class for Miss C. She thinks I’m setting her up for failure.

There’s a common thread that runs through the stories of Miss R and Miss C: both are bright, hardworking female students who feel profoundly challenged by debate. Both fear failure and can’t stand disappointing their teachers or peers. I wonder why my male students, who on average are far less serious about debate than Miss R and Miss C, don’t share the same insecurities. As it turns out, psychology has the answer: “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” Now it all makes sense.

No matter how much I emphasize that debate is a “mental workout,” that practicing debate is akin to exercising a muscle, and that strength and confidence grow with practice, some of my female students interpret their mistakes and uncertainties as evidence of a lack of ability, not just as normal, natural stages in the development of first-time debaters.

I can’t help but feel that I have contributed to Miss R and Miss C’s insecurities. I operate under the assumption that practice makes perfect, an assumption many female students doubt. My class is intense. We do fast-paced lessons and lots of timed practice. I’m a demanding teacher. I assign challenging homework every night, including writing to persuade, putting evidence in their own words, and evaluating nonfiction sources from think tank reports to magazine articles. I bet it feels tough. I demand excellence, and especially for students like Miss R and Miss C, the prospect of disappointing me can be devastating. The same high expectations that have pushed my students to achieve so much in so little time have also pushed at least these two students – probably more – to new levels of stress.

There’s only one way to read this data – I’ve got to change something. It’s not time to overcorrect; these experiences are not so much a reason to change course entirely as an opportunity to trim the sails and head for calmer seas. In the next 36 hours, I’m going to do everything in my power to soothe nerves, answer last-minute questions, and inject added doses of motivation and inspiration. Most of all, I need to strike up one-on-one conversations with every student. It’s time to listen with the patient ear of the debate coach I wish to be.


A world of light and shadow

The Doctor's House

In this post, you’ll find my favorite photos from a photographic excursion I took this morning with friend and fellow photographer Alexandra Hehlen (check out her beautiful blogazine, the Candid Correspondent, here). 

Decaying places possess a certain romance.

On the grounds of Dockery Farms, a plantation just outside Cleveland, Mississippi, there stands a small house in the throes of decay. Once, it served as the doctor’s house, but today the doctor is most certainly not in. Two doors are missing, plants have sprouted in the kitchen sink, and graffiti portraits haunt the walls. Even so, the doctor’s house and its environs beckon with beauty. Welcome to this world of light and shadow.

Window Bathroom WindowIMG_5372Lucky YouKitchen SinkVenus de MiloTiresGraveyard Armchair

Setting Goals

Future Goals

Our students are an inspiring lot. Last Friday, they brought in their goals for five different categories: Fitness, Future, Growth, Relationships, and Rhetoric (the subject I’m teaching). These goals speak for themselves.


Fitness Goal
I’d imagine the serpentine diet could become rather unhealthy
Fitness Goal
From our resident scholar-athlete
This student has a firm deadline – the year of her high school graduation


Future Goal
An early start is essential (goal from a rising 9th grader)
Future Goal
Thurgood Marshall has history nipping at his heels
A student after my own heart
Athletic career and fallback career!
Future Goal
At least the sticky note was Duke Blue 😥


Growth Goal
This little goal of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Yes, a mythology lover!
Growth Goal
Oui, bien sûr! ¡Fantástico!
Growth Goal
Blessed are the meek
This will be one f—ing successful student


A worthy goal indeed
Relationship Goal
What a great leader sets as her goal
Relationship Goal
There’s no deadline for making family the most wonderful thing in your life
Relationship Goal
This one makes my heart sing


Rhetoric Goal
Music to a rhetoric teacher’s ears
Rhetoric Goal
A lesson we all have to learn and re-learn!
Growth Goal
“Speeches that Changed the World” is in our class library – one of my favorite anthologies
Rhetoric Goal
Someone mastered the S and T (for Specific and Time-bound) in SMART Goals
Rhetoric Goal
Headlines the next day: “Engaging speaker grabs audience, refuses to let it go”
Rhetoric Goal
And may your words sound like thunder
Rhetoric Goal
Chandler’s mission
Rhetoric Goal
Our friends in Washington could learn from this child!

Good Mojo

Chandler and I making a "Classroom Citizenship" poster. This activity sparked discussion over our values for the Rhetoric class we're co-teaching and contributed to the good mojo of our classroom.
Chandler and I created a “Classroom Citizenship” poster togther. This activity sparked discussion over our values for the rhetoric class we’re co-teaching and helped to set clear expectations for our students, contributing to the overall good mojo of our classroom.

It’s all in the mojo.

The most effective teams all have some “x factor,” some “secret sauce” in common: good mojo. I define “good mojo” as an organization’s resilience (the ability to respond constructively to unforeseen circumstances) coupled with the capacity to build small gains into a larger positive feedback loop.

Good mojo results from intentionality. It flows from a strong, growth-oriented team/company/organization culture. Organizations that communicate clear objectives, provide robust support and ongoing training, foster feedback-seeking interpersonal relationships, and carve out time to reflect all generate good mojo.

This is all very abstract, so I’m going to use today’s events at the Sunflower County Freedom Project as a parable of good mojo.

When I walked into my classroom this morning, I had only slept for 9 of the preceding 48 hours. Even with the first-week adrenaline and early-morning caffeine priming my instructional pump, I felt tired. My 8th grade students trudged into the classroom and moved lethargically as they started their first task. I thought to myself, “I’m going to act energetic for the first five minutes and see how it goes.” That thought was a variation on an old trick my father once taught me. To conquer stage fright, just pretend for the first ten seconds of your performance that you aren’t totally terrified or tired or unprepared. After those first ten seconds, you’ve engaged your audience and the nerves begin to calm.

In those first five minutes, I strove to follow the advice of more experienced teachers: create a sense of urgency. We are at our most productive when there is a sense of a tangible, achievable goal with a realistic but challenging time limit. Although we did have some lagging moments during the class, I could definitely feel the room shift to focus and efficiency when we did hit maximum urgency.

Wouldn’t it be great if every sleep-inducing, time-wasting meeting you attend were infused with urgency? Managers and CEOs could take a leaf out of the teacher’s book here.

Other good mojo moments today:

  • Receiving feedback from supervisors
  • Giving feedback to students
  • Reflecting on how students are doing (identifying who needs more support and who needs more rigor)
  • Sharing “glows” and “grows” (positive and constructive self-feedback)
  • Being surprised with our favorite snacks during the weekly meeting

Good mojo is palpable. You ought to be able to feel it at the end of a long day, even if that day’s beginning was subpar at best.


First Day of School

Chinmay and Ms. W, rising 7th grader and likely member of the Stanford Class of 2025

Some quotes from Day 1:

  • “I bet you’re the yoga teacher.” – Mr. H to Chinmay
  • “Debate matters because it changes how people see issues. The first major issue in our country was slavery, and it took over a hundred years of debates for people to change their minds. That’s why debate matters.” – Ms. M on the virtue of debate
  • “On the white side of town, they set their dogs on you.” – Mr. W warning other students not to wander off during recess

I’ve always been an optimist about the middle school years. Although I faced my own share of miserable experiences during those years, I now view them with the rosy glasses of hindsight. Now they seem more a crucible than a yoke. They’re formative years, make-or-break years, years we should value for giving us our mettle. Most importantly, they’re malleable years.

When I looked into my students’ eyes today, I didn’t see despair or cynicism or hopelessness. I only saw potential. At this age, there’s an incredible malleability, the capacity, as one middle school English teacher wrote in my yearbook, “to admit your faults, discover your passions, and begin anew.” Many Sunflower students, I have no doubt, have endured dark nights of the soul. If they have, they sure didn’t show it today.

I’m enclosing here the letter I wrote to my students:

June 1, 2015

Dear Freedom Fellows,

Welcome to rhetoric class! My name is Mr. King and I’m excited to be the lead teacher for 8th grade, the co-teacher for 9th grade, and the teacher assistant for 7th grade. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Now, I attend Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This past year, I took classes in Spanish, political science, environmental science, philosophy, and education.

I love my family dearly. My parents are older and I am their only child together. They always read to me when I was little, supported my hobbies of photography and gardening (my dad and I once built a greenhouse together), nurtured my passions in history and politics, and have stayed invested in my success as I have grown older. When I was 13, they divorced. It was hard for me at first, but now I see the wisdom in their decision. I think them happier apart. As for the future, I have a few ambitions. One of them is to be a loving husband and father. Another dream is to pursue a career solving problems and serving others – as a teacher, diplomat, business leader, or social entrepreneur – and maybe even run for public office one day. The same desire to serve others brought me to the Sunflower County Freedom Project. I have passion for rhetoric and experience in speech and debate, and there’s no subject I think could be more important for you to learn this summer. Rhetoric changed my life and it will change yours too.

Rhetoric class is not about making you all sound the same – it’s about equipping you with a toolbox of skills so that when you speak up, others will listen to what you have to say. Speech and debate will challenge you, but they will also make you grow. I hope you learn as much from me as I learn from you. Again, I’m so happy to be in Sunflower County working with you this summer. I promise to give it my all this summer and I expect you to do the same.


Mr. King 

Passing the fields of Sunflower County on the way home tonight

One last thought: teaching is like any other performing art. It takes thoughtful planning, dedicated practice, and irrepressible passion to dazzle your audience.

Raw teaching talent can only take you so far. The rest is grit.